It was the desire of Jesus that the Temple be a house of prayer for the nations. Instead, it was full of religious activities with the priests in their rich garments, the expensive sacrificial ceremonies, the formality of the pomp and priestly procedures, the rituals and rites of cleansing and consecration, all without free repentance and restitution. In the midst of all the elaborate and sacred ceremonies – the blowing of the shofar, the fire and smoke, the blood of the altar and the water of the laver – the wonder of all the symbolic action, the simplicity of communion with God, had been lost. Getting to God had become a complicated maze.
The money changers extracted an enormous surcharge from those with foreign money who needed to make change to pay their offerings of restitution or vows of consecration. The sheep merchants had also inflated the price of the approved lambs. Those with meager means who wanted to offer a burnt or peace offering (Leviticus 1; 3), and who needed to offer a sin or trespass offering (chs. 4; 5) could hardly afford to do so.
These common and poor people wanted to get to the altar to get right with God. Some wanted to consecrate themselves and then offer to God the peace offering (ch. 3). From that offering, the priest would return to them a portion of the sacrifice, according to the Law, and allow them to eat it in the Presence of God as a symbol of their fellowship and union with Him (7:15-18). But the Temple system placed obstacles loaded with exorbitant fees between the people and God. To purchase the lamb, they needed to exchange their foreign money. Upon exchange, they met excessive fees. With reduced funds, they encountered inflated prices for the sacrificial lambs. Much of the time, the lambs they brought could not pass inspection. They didn’t qualify as perfect enough for an offering. It was all a rip-off.
Jesus thunders through the Temple, overturning tables: “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:12, 13; Mark 11:15-17). He was a prophet, crying out, not against the exchange of currency or the availability of lambs in the Temple, but against the obstacles that prevented the people from praying, against the arrangement that put a price on prayer and access to the grace of God. But there is more! When we quote this passage, we often leave off the phrase “for all nations.” No prayer ministry is complete unless it has a global and missional focus. It was incarnational, global and missional praying that Jesus longed for in the Temple. Jerusalem was to be a blessing for and to the nations. The call to Abraham was that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18).
This blog is an excerpt from the Revised Edition of Transforming Your Church Into a House of Prayer. This book echoes something we are all hearing: God is changing more than our circumstances. God is calling us to change. The Reformation is still on. God is still changing His church.
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P. Douglas Small is founder and president of Alive Ministries: PROJECT PRAY and he serves in conjunction with a number of other organizations. He is also the creator of the Praying Church Movement and the Prayer Trainer’s Network. However, all views expressed are his own and not the official position of any organization.